Storm of Water
"Hiro-kun!" I supported my friend as he sagged in my arms, muscles gone loose. "Are you all right?" What a stupid question! Of course he wasn't all right; he'd just spent all of his energy battling a hurricane!
To his credit, he didn't say anything about how ridiculous the question I'd just asked him was. "I'm fine, Kasu-chan," he murmured softly, smiling. "Just tired. Can you help me inside? I think I should lie down -- and I don't really have the energy to lift myself with Air."
I laughed. Even in a crisis, Hiroshi always knew the right thing to say to make me feel better. He was so light-hearted, and I loved that about him. "Of course. You deserve it, after that." I took one side of him and Satoshi moved to the other without being asked. Together, we got him inside his room and into bed.
I didn't really know how to feel about all of this. I was worried, because I cared about Hiroshi and didn't want to see him hurt. But I wasn't, because I was just so confident that he could handle anything, even exhaustion. I'd just seen him beat all odds to eliminate that storm, hadn't I? He was the one person in my life that I knew I could count on, no matter what.
I have never had an easy life, though people who don't know any better would call me a brat to have said that. Truthfully, I envy Hiroshi his life; mine was quite a bit more complicated. In the public eye, I had to remain at least reasonably friendly toward my sisters, or they'd have me eliminated -- and I don't necessarily mean killed. Despite my protestations, if I became a serious threat, they could have me literally dragged to the altar in chains. However, they wouldn't risk the shattering blow I could deliver to their public image -- unless I gave them some serious cause. I haven't yet, and I don't intend to. I am at their mercy; they are at mine. None of us can break free. It may be best for all of us if I slipped away one day and never returned -- but I know my sisters would not be pleased. Something they considered theirs, escaping them? Horrors. Can't have that, now can we?
"Do you need anything, Hiroshi?" I heard Satoshi ask. He was looking around at the bottles kept on a shelf at the far side of the room -- emergency supplies, obviously. "One of those potions, or a tonic, or something...?"
Hiroshi smiled. "No. It's like it was with you, both times. Simple exhaustion. All I need is some rest and relaxation and I'll be fine."
"Of course, you'd say you were fine even if you had a broken leg, Hiro-kun," I pointed out, grinning, and he shrugged, a sheepish smile spreading across his face.
"You're hopeless!" I pretended to to be exasperrated, but spoiled it by laughing. Hiroshi knew how to make me laugh, any time. I guess because he knew me for so long...
I don't know why, but for some reason, I could always remember everything about Hiroshi from when we were kids. The time when we met... the first time we snuck out of our houses to play when we weren't allowed... when we were five years old and he proposed marriage to me... I smiled, focussing back on that one.
I rolled over and looked at my best friend, who lay splayed out on the grass of the field beside me, fine clothes shamelessly crumpled. The smile on his face was so wide that it seemed to have to spread onto mine as well. "Yeah?"
"Want to get married?"
"I guess I might, but not today." I shrugged. "When I'm older, maybe."
He giggled a little. "That's the wrong question. I mean, want to marry me? Not right now," he added quickly, eyes widening ever so slightly. "When we're older, Kasu-chan, want to marry me?"
"Oh... maybe." I smiled at him. "I dunno if I want to. I'll tell you some day, Hiro-kun, OK? Just wait."
"I will," he promised carelessly, and then stared back up at the sky and smiled...
I mimicked that. Don't ask why I had such vivid memories of Hiroshi. The years after we parted are still fairly dim in my mind, even memories from just a few weeks ago -- but those small moments with my friend remain permanently etched there in perfect detail. Happiness, I suppose. I'm never as happy when I'm not with Hiroshi.
"What are you thinking, Kasu-chan?" I heard him ask suddenly, and realized I must've looked pretty much out of it. He's grinning at me, and I'm struck by how much he has changed, physically, while that smile remained the same.
"Thinking back," I admitted, then glanced at Satoshi, who looked as if he couldn't decide whether or not he was intruding on something. "But if we started a conversation about when we were kids, I think Satoshi might feel a little left out."
"I wouldn't," he protested.
"Liar." Hiroshi blinked, and I could tell he was fighting off sleep. I set a hand on his shoulder almost absently, and felt him relax under it. "You can say that now, but if we started talking about it, you would feel uncomfortable."
"Well, maybe," Satoshi conceded.
"You'd wish for a certain someone to be here," Hiroshi smiled, eyes half shut, "so you'd have company then."
Satoshi immediately turned a bright crimson, and I wondered what I was missing in there. Well, Hiroshi would fall asleep soon enough, and then I'd see if our Earth mage friend would explain it to me. "I'd wish for Shigeru to be here no matter what," he said softly, voice tinted with quiet emotion.
I was definitely missing something there.
"Mmm..." That was it; Hiroshi was out. I pulled the blanket over him and walked back out of the room, with Satoshi tagging along behind.
"All right." I turned on him once we were back in Hiroshi's sitting room, grinning wickedly. "Now tell me: what's this about somebody named 'Shigeru', hmm?"
"So there's no Air crisis." Shigeru regarded Nanami steadily.
She shook her head. "Same story. You can talk to the mages if you want to, but they'll tell you the exact same thing that the Earth mages told you. The storm started, but a single presense held it back, then put it out completely. And now, there is nothing wrong with Air."
Shigeru was silent for a moment, then he stood and walked over to the door where his sister stood. "You know what? We've been lucky. That's twice." He looked away from her and frowned. "Can we really afford to take these chances again twice more?"
"What else can we do?" Nanami fixed him with a flat stare. "Even our mages don't know how to halt these catastrophes. Somehow, in Masara, they seem to know what they're doing. Why not leave it to them?"
"No!" Shigeru slammed his fist into the wall furiously. "That isn't right! I can't do it, Nanami! I can't back off and hope that they can save themselves! I have to be out there, doing something. I may have only Fire magic, but I'm strong with it, and I can at least help, somehow. What use am I here?"
"You're the King," she reminded him.
"I wear the crown." He snorted. "That's about all. You are running this country, Nanami, and what am I doing to help? I'm lying around trying to get some rest while daydreaming about someone I've never even met!"
"Shigeru..." she began, but he cut her off.
"People are in danger out there, and they can't even prepare, because they don't know." He scowled. All right, control was gone; his fingers were smoking, and he didn't particularly care. "Satoshi is out there, and I want to know that the both of us will live long enough to finally meet. I'm sure that there are others out there in similar situations..." Or not... We are a bit unusual, I think. "I want to know that they have a reasonable chance at the hope and love."
Silence. Nanami once again met his eyes exactly. "If you had the proper temperment for ruling, Shigeru, you would be perfect."
He blinked at that. "I..."
"Oh, yes." She smiled. "Noble to a fault. Sincere. Passionate. People would love you. Add that to the fact that you are young and handsome, and your popularity is assured to be high. You are an ideal ruler: full of charisma and an exciting desire for change and improvement. Perfect."
"Why is why I have the temper," he added, closing his eyes and running a hand through his hair. "Because no one is perfect."
"Perhaps. But you have some decisions to make, Shigeru," she told him, raising an eyebrow. "I have work to do, though, so I'll have to leave you to it."
"All right." Shigeru sank back down onto the bed, sighing. "I understand."
"Good luck, Geru-chan," she said, moving out the door and shutting it firmly behind her.
Luck... I'll need it to work this mess out. Shigeru flopped back down onto the bed. Only two Elements left to explode in our faces now. Fire and Water. And I don't know which will come first, but I want to be there for the Fire crisis, because that's the one I can help with. He sighed. But... do I leave now, or wait until the mages know which crisis it is? The question he had to ask himself was, could his conscience handle him sitting safe in the palace while others outside might suffer?
No, Shigeru answered himself, stubbornly. If only because of Satoshi... I can't sit in here and sulk when the other half of my heart is out there somewhere and I might never get the chance to make it whole! He clenched his fists and thought of the dream... Satoshi's soft skin, so tantalizingly right there but beyond his reach at the same time... that hand, warm in Shigeru's... the soothing cool sense of that presense... and he felt complete. This had to be destiny. Satoshi was his -- his alone -- and they could spend eternity together... Shigeru smiled faintly. Well, perhaps not eternity, but our whole lifes, certainly. And, he couldn't help but believe, every moment of it would be perfect.
"Satoshi... love..." Shiger whispered softly, staring at the ceiling. "I'll come to you... come for you. And nothing in the world can keep us apart."
"Nothing," Satoshi said, just a little too quickly. His cheeks heated. Gods, no... she'll know it's not 'nothing'. And... she knows... Shigeru... Somehow, he just couldn't seem to be able to put together a coherent thought.
"Nothing, huh?" Kasumi grinned. "'Nothing' makes you blush, does it, Satoshi?" He could feel himself turning even redder with her teasing. "Come on, tell me. Who is Shigeru? A lover?"
"No!" He pressed a hand up to his cheeks, hoping to cool them. "All right, I'll tell you. But promise you won't laugh, Kasumi, all right?"
"I promise. Tell me." She smiled expectantly at him.
"OK..." Satoshi willed away his embarrassment. "Well... you see... I have these dreams, sometimes... about somebody who saves me from a fire. I can't tell who it is, or anything about them, but I can't help... feeling... when they're near."
She frowned, but didn't look as though she thought him crazy. "So it's like a premonition... you dream about something that is going to happen, or someone you're going to meet. I've heard stranger stories, Satoshi."
"Well... it seems so silly." He sighed and sank into a chair. "I mean, I'm in love with a dream, Kasumi! I don't know anything about this person -- how they look, how they act, what kind of person they are... But I can't help it; it's as if our souls are entwined, and we can't stay apart like this, so in dreams..." He stopped, choked by a longing that just couldn't be put into words.
"And all you know is that the name of this person is Shigeru," she added softly.
And it's the most beautiful name in the world because of that! "Hiroshi heard me say it in my sleep," he explained. "But I'm glad he did... now I know that much, at least."
"It must be hard for you, Satoshi," she commented. "I mean, being in love and not knowing who it is you're in love with, or when the two of you will meet." There was sympathy in her eyes.
"It is, but I can handle it now," he was quick to assure her, with more confidence than he really felt. "Because I believe that one day we'll meet, and be deliriously happy together. Hiroshi told me hope is what keeps you going, sometimes."
"Hiro-kun is pretty smart," she smiled, and he saw affection in her eyes. Did she...? Honestly, Satoshi couldn't tell. If she loves him back, then maybe, they could be together...
Still, he didn't have the right to judge. After what Hiroshi had said about the way their friendship would have to turn to love, he definitely felt wrong about interfering in any way. They'll have to work it out themselves.
"You know, Shigeru is the King's name," Kasumi remarked suddenly, snapping him out of his reverie. She snickered. "I met him once; maybe he's your dream partner. He dumped my sister Sakura on the ground when she tried to bed him."
"Hiroshi told me that already," Satoshi admitted. "But I didn't know the King's name was Shigeru." Maybe he is... does this mean that Shigeru is a boy's name? That could tell me something else I had wondered about... "How come she tried to bed him, anyway?"
Kasumi smiled. "She hoped to become Queen -- marry him and all. You know, the usual."
"Right." That brought something else back to Satoshi's mind. "I guess Hiroshi will have to get married now, won't he? Because he's the Air mage in the prophecy..."
She blinked, then frowned slightly. "That's right, I suppose. He will have to." There was a decidedly unenthusiastic tone to her voice. Oh, so she's not too thrilled about that, is she? Maybe because she wanted to marry him...
"I don't think he'd be happy if he had to marry someone he didn't even know," Satoshi said. "Do you?"
"Not many people would be," she replied, a bit sharply. "But, all the same, you don't know Shigeru, do you? And yet, if the two of you were destined to marry, that would still make you ecstatically happy, wouldn't it?
"That's different." Satoshi felt himself blush. "Hiroshi hasn't been having dreams about some Water mage, so it wouldn't be the same."
"I guess not." Kasumi sighed. "I should go; my sisters will be expecting me for lunch." She walked out the door without another word.
"But..." Satoshi blinked. It's barely even mid-morning...
Something wet and cold fell onto Hiroshi's face, and he mumbled something in his sleep, brushing at it. Water. Another drop fell after the first. What the...? He sat up, and looked at the ceiling. The familiar sound of raindrops rapidly pounding into the roof greeted him, and another drop of water fell to land on his forehead. Great. The roof is leaking. Well, isn't that just perfect?
He felt better, though. More awake. Wonder what time it is. Kasumi might still be here... and Satoshi definitely will be. His stomach growled. I need food, at any rate.
Standing, he made his way shakily out of the bedroom and into the sitting room. Satoshi was curled up on the couch with a book taken from Hiroshi's shelf. The Air mage smiled. "Kasumi left, hmm?"
The black-haired boy started, then returned the smile. "Oh... she left a while ago. Said she had to go and eat lunch with her sisters." He put down the book. "I hope you don't mind me reading this, I just needed something to do while you slept, and the shelf was right there..."
"It's OK." Hiroshi yawned and stretched. "Hungry?"
"Yeah!" Satoshi was off the couch and bounding toward the kitchen before he could blink twice. "I'm starving! What do you have?"
"Let me check." Hiroshi looked in the cupboard. "Um... not much, actually. I need to stock up again pretty soon. I'll do it later, since it's raining outside at the moment."
"Is it?" Satoshi glanced out the window. "Hey, you're right." He turned back and grinned. "In that case, I think I'll go for a walk after we eat lunch."
Hiroshi raised an eyebrow. "A walk? In the rain?"
"Yeah, it's fun." Satoshi smiled. "Want to come with me?"
"No, I'll take your word for it." He grabbed a loaf of bread, then dug into the cold box for cheese. "If it were snowing, I might take you up on it, but not rain..."
"You're no fun." Satoshi completed the roll he'd been building and raised in to his mouth for a bite. Hiroshi watched, amazed. But he's so tiny... Where does he put it all? Well, the Earth mage had to be just one of those funny people...
"Did Kasumi say when she'd be back?" Hiroshi asked, finally managing to tear his eyes from the spectacle long enough to complete his own, more modest-sized roll.
"No." Satoshi polished off the last of his strange creation and gazed sympathetically at Hiroshi. "But I'm sure she'll be back." He grinned. "She just seemed a little upset when I reminded her that you'd have to get married soon."
The Air mage did a double take. "Oh... right." He would have to get married now, wouldn't he? "I don't know how I'm going to manage being with someone who's not Kasumi," he muttered, more to himself than to Satoshi.
"I'll be hard," Satoshi agreed, patting his shoulder. "I don't envy you even a little, Hiro-kun. To marry someone you don't even know."
"You should talk." Hiroshi grinned. "You're going to have to go to bed with someone you don't even know. Doesn't that worry you?"
Satoshi's cheeks reddened. "Actually... I hadn't really thought about it," he admitted, rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably. "I kind of forgot."
"Well, I guess it's not so bad," Hiroshi conceded, an evil glint in his eyes. "Since you'll probably end up bedding Shigeru, hmm?"
If possible, Satoshi went even redder. "How do you know?"
"Well, I don't know, actually." He shrugged. "It just seemed right, since you're having dreams like that... Sounds like destiny to me."
"Maybe." The blush was fading from Satoshi's cheeks. "That would be nice, but..." He sighed. "You never know, I guess. Are you sure you don't want to come for that walk with me, Hiro-kun?" Abrupt subject change.
"I'll pass." Hiroshi grinned. "Just don't catch cold, or I'll make you pay for the tonics I have to use on you."
"Deal." Then the Earth mage escaped out the door, into the rain. Well, that's one thing I know for sure about him: he doesn't waste time.
Hiroshi sank onto his couch and thought back over the conversation. I am going to have to get married. It was so strange to think of; he'd always just assumed that if he married anyone, it would be Kasumi. Plans change, I guess. I'll do what I have to. Sure, he wouldn't be in love with his bride, but it didn't have to mean unhappiness forever. I'll still see Kasumi as I am now; the only difference will be that I will never be able to have her as I want, because I'll already be with someone else. That was even stranger to think.
Oh well. Hiroshi sighed, and took up the book Satoshi had set down. I suppose I just have to deal with it. It's destiny... I guess...
I rolled over and stared at the wall of my chambers blankly, still not really able to take this all in. Hiroshi was going to get married. A small, insistant part of my mind kept telling me, But he promised to wait for me... I scowled and flipped onto my back again, staring angrily at the ceiling. Why do I care? It's not like we were engaged or anything. I just didn't want things to change; if Hiroshi got married, could we have the same relationship? At the moment, it hardly seemed like it.
I'll be alone... I couldn't bear the thought of losing him. He's my Hiro-kun, my friend, my... Impossible. I closed my eyes. I can't lose him, I can't...
"Kasumi!" Sakura knocked at my door. "Hurry up and open this door! We have something important to discuss with you."
"What now?" I took my time getting up, stretching, yawning, making my way slowly over to unlock the door. "I don't feel like playing games at the moment."
"This isn't a game, Kasumi!" Botan snapped, as all three of my sisters came into my room.
"Get ready for lunch," Ayame added, smirking.
Sakura gazed at me coolly. "We've selected your husband for you."
"What!?" I whirled to glare at them. This was unbelievable! "I told the three of you yesterday that I wouldn't be getting married! Is there something wrong with your ears as well as your brains?"
"Grow up, Kasumi!" Sakura snapped. "We've let you have your little games for most of your life, but you're supposed to be a woman now, not a child. The three of us at least know our duty -- what have you done for Hanada? Our state requires that you marry and you cannot refuse! It is your duty as a Princess."
"I seem to remember hearing this before." I rolled my eyes. "It didn't work yesterday, and it won't today. I will never marry for your selfish gains!"
"Selfish?" Botan stepped forward angrily. "We are considering Hanada's best interests, you brat! The least you could do is marry like a proper Princess..."
"The day I become a proper Princess," I replied coldly, "is the day I lose every ounce of self-respect I possess. And don't even try that crap about 'the good of Hanada' with me, sister! Hanada is a few upper-class citizens. Do the lower or middle classes even notice when our state loses or gains power? No! And do you know why? Because the only thing it affects is your status!"
"You will do as we say!" Sakura ordered, eyes flashing.
I laughed in her face. "I hope you haven't falsely raised the hopes of some poor young opportunist, sisters, because I won't be marrying any man you have selected for me. I'd sooner die."
"No man would have you if not for us!" Ayame commented nastily.
"No man would have you if not for your status and your phoney shows!" I shot back. "At least I have one man in my life who actually knows me!" And I can't be with him any more now; I've lost him forever...
"I can tell how well he likely knows you," Botan smirked.
"Is that all you can think of?" I snorted. "Figures! The three of you are first-class whores! There's more to love and trust than bedding a star-struck young noble."
"I'd say something similar if I were an unloved little virgin like you." Ayame tossed her head and smiled in satisfaction.
"I pity you, Ayame," I told her softly. "You don't know the meaning of the word."
"Love? A means to an end." Sakura smiled slowly. "I suggest you take this lesson to heart, little sister. When a powerful man believes himself to be 'in love', the power he wields is partly yours already. Why waste time on one poor man, when you can be 'loved' by thousands, poor and wealthy alike. Love is a power trick, Kasumi."
I shook my head. "Only someone who's never felt the emotion before would say something like that, Sakura. It seems to me that it's you who has much to learn, not me."
Botan sighed. "How could you have grown up so ignorant?"
"I was lucky," I retored. "You weren't around."
"Do you think yourself in love, Kasumi?" Ayame laughed softly. "You'll learn soon enough what we mean. Love means nothing; power is everything. The illusion of love can give power to those clever enough to use it."
"You are so depraved." I turned my back on them in disgust. "If Hiroshi were here..." He'd prove you wrong. Hiroshi is light and goodness; you would stand no chance with him.
"Hiroshi?" Sakura smirked. "A lover of yours, Kasumi?"
"Does he say he loves you?" Botan asked mockingly.
"I'm leaving," I told them abruptly, cutting around them to walk briskly out the door. "Don't be surprised if I never come back."
Because I'd sooner take advantage of Hiroshi's hospitality than spend another minute with you!
"What are you doing?"
Shigeru didn't even look up at his sister's voice. Another clean shirt was stuffed into the bag on his bed. "Packing," he said shortly.
She came into the room and stood near to where he was furiously trying to get everything ready. "And where are you going, Shigeru?"
This time he did stop, looking up to grace her with a sardonic smile. "I would have though you'd be able to guess it, Nanami," he told her. "But I suppose I can tell you, if you can't figure it out. I'm going to Masara."
"So then you're abdicating." She frowned. "I'll support your decision, but why aren't you announcing it?"
"Because!" He whirled around to face her. "I'd be expected to show up for your coronation, and I hardly have the time right now. It could be weeks before everything is arranged, and by that time, we might not even be alive to witness it!"
"And how do you know then that I will be able to rule in your stead, Shigeru?" she asked pointedly. "What gives me that authority, if you haven't declared it?"
He frowned. I hadn't really thought of that, but still... "It doesn't matter right now. I have to leave. I'll come back later, if I must."
"Shigeru." Nanami's face turned thoughtful. "I already know what the third crisis will be."
He sighed. "All right, what?"
"Water," she answered shortly. "And the mages predict that there will be more time after the crisis -- if we survive it -- before the Fire crisis takes place. Because Water dampens the chance of fires breaking out unexpectedly."
"What's your point, Nanami?" he asked irritatbly. "I still have to go; I can't just stay here and wait, you know."
"Nobody said you had to wait." She moved next to him. "If you signed an agreement that said I would rule in your stead while you were absent, we could have it approved by the coucillors and you could leave for as long as you liked without worry."
"But how long would that take?" he demanded fiercely. "By the time you finished it, there might not be a place for me to travel to at all!"
"It would only be a few days, Shigeru," she responded firmly. "According to our mages, we will have about that long if the Water crisis is averted. You know there's nothing you can do about that, so why not wait?"
That is true... Shigeru scowled. He didn't want to admitt it, but her words made sense. "All right, fine," he gave in. "I'll stay to sign your agreement -- but after that, I'm gone, and I don't know if I'll be coming back. Understand?"
"Perfectly." Nanami gazed at him steadily for a minute. "Good luck, Shigeru," she whispered softly, then turned and left before he could answer.
Good luck... if it is with me, then I'll be able to get there in time. He shivered and put aside the bag, lying down on the bed. And I'll be able to finally meet my Satoshi... Shigeru sighed and rolled over. Then I won't have to fall asleep in order for us to be together. His fingers traced the firy design on the quilt. If I can do something -- anything -- to help Satoshi, then my life will have meant something. He laughed softly. I'm getting so strange and sentimental now -- but I guess being in love with a dream isn't everyone's definition of 'normal', either.
He smiled. Well, wherever you are, Satoshi, I'll be with you soon enough.
And that would truly be a dream come true.
Something warm closed around his hand, and Satoshi looked up. "Shigeru..." His voice caught in his throat as the fire that separated them faded away.
"Satoshi." A smile spread slowly across Shigeru's face; the distance between them was closed entirely, and he stared up at this dream figure, trembling. "Love you," Shigeru whispered softly, and a hand brushed lightly over Satoshi's face, making him close his eyes in silent pleasure.
We've never touched before... except to hold hands... "Oh..." Satoshi gasped and melted against Shigeru, the need to surrender to those touches near overwhelming. "M-more... please..."
"Anything, Satoshi..." The words were breathed into his ear, making him shudder with pleasure. Shigeru's fingers ghosted over his shoulders, down his chest... Satoshi gasped again and wound his arms around his dream person, sinking into that warmth with something close to desperation.
"Don't go," he whispered, and felt tears on his cheeks. "Stay... please."
Uncertainty played across Shigeru's features. "I... don't think I can."
The answer was expected. He clung tighter to Shigeru, pressing himself against that warm body. "Love you," he sighed.
"Me too. I wish we could meet." Shigeru slid arms around Satoshi's waist. "I'd make you mine -- forever."
"I'll wait for you," Satoshi promised softly. "Always... I..."
Satoshi inhaled water, and felt himself choke. Coughing uncontrollably, he sat up and looked around in puzzlement. The memory of Shigeru's arms around him was so close... He sighed. I must've fallen asleep when I stopped to rest.
But the water... Satoshi looked around and, for the first time, realized that he was sitting in water high enough to engulf his head completely if he were leaning back against the tree as he had been before being so rudely awakened. But... it wasn't like this when I sat down. He checked the sky. And it hasn't been that long since then; it's not dark out or anything.
Satoshi gazed at his surroundings. He'd been by the river, which seemed to have expanded rather alarmingly, and it had been raining. It was still raining, in fact -- but that couldn't have been what affected the water level so drastically. Something was wrong.
The third crisis! he realized, and stood abruptly. Water dripped off of his now-heavy clothes as he sloshed through the rapidly increasing, thigh-high water. I've got to get Hiroshi and Kasumi... I hope she's there; she's our only Water mage.
And maybe, if they were lucky, she was the one in the prophecy as well.
The door swung open and Hiroshi jumped. From his doorway, Kasumi grinned at him. "Scared you, didn't I, Hiro-kun?"
"You just surprised me," he corrected her. "I wasn't expecting you to come bursting in on me -- and I was really into my book." He held up the reading material.
"Ah, well, either way." She shrugged. "It's really pouring out there, you know. Strange..." A frown formed on her face, then she seemed to dismiss it. Hiroshi noticed that she wasn't even the slightest bit wet... "I have a favor to ask you, Hiroshi."
"Go ahead." He put down the book.
Kasumi looked a little uncomfortable. "Can I... stay with you for a few days? Just until I've got steady work and can afford my own place. I've left my sisters, so I'm kind of stuck right now."
"I'd be glad to have you, Kasu-chan." He waved toward a chair, and she took the invitation to sit. "You know that you don't even need to ask. But what made you leave?"
She sighed. "They came into my room and told me they'd chosen a husband for me already. It kind of made me a bit cross."
Well, there seems to have been a trend of that sort of thing lately... Hiroshi bit back a laugh. What is it about everyone being forced into marriage all of a sudden? Although I don't think that Kasumi will actually marry this guy... "So you just left, hmm?"
"Well, there was a bit more to it than that," she admitted. "But you have the general idea." She let out a sigh. "Now I've just got to find something to do with my life."
Spend it with me. Even if he wanted to, though, he couldn't say it. He had lost Kasumi; someone else was taking her place, and it made him feel like he'd lost a piece of himself as well... I'll survive, though. I'll have to.
"At least you can choose now, Kasu-chan," he reminded her. "My life has apparently been planned out for me. And now I have to marry."
She was silent for a while, then her face turned, expressionless, toward the window. "Things are going to change," she said softly.
"I know." Hiroshi sighed. So he hadn't been the only one thinking about it. "But there's not much we can do about that, is there?"
"No." Kasumi gave him a quick smile. "But, look at it this way. I'll be living in Masara now, so we won't have to send letters to talk to each other."
He grinned. "True, I guess." But our friendship will change, Kasumi, and you can't stop that. It hurt just to think it. Hiroshi tried to imagine what it would be like to have a wife who wasn't Kasumi, and found he couldn't. She's going to be living a walk away, but it's going to seem like a million miles.
"Hiro-kun?" Kasumi said suddenly, snapping him out of his reverie. "Do you remember the time when we were kids, and you proposed marriage to me?"
His breath caught in his throat; she still remembered that? He did, of course, but still... "Just barely. I was only five years old at the time." He smiled. Back then, it had just been a spur of the moment decision -- Kasumi is nice; I should marry her -- but it would definitely mean something now.
"That's the first thing I thought of when I realized that you'd have to get married," she admitted, a faint smile playing on her lips. "Silly, huh? The things we remember. I can't see you getting married, Hiro-kun; it seems so... I don't know."
He didn't really know what to say to that. "You'll come, though, won't you?"
"You think I'd miss seeing you at the altar?" She grinned wickedly. "I'll be right there when you forget everything you're supposed to say!"
"Thanks, Kasu-chan." He rolled his eyes and smiled. "Now I don't feel nervous. I don't know what I'd do without you."
"You'd be a lot better off." They both laughed.
Her eyes softened suddenly as she sobered once more. "You know, Hiroshi, I..."
He never got to hear what she was going to say, because at that moment, Satoshi burst in through the front door, soaking wet and shivering all over. "You guys have to come quick!" he blurted out. "A whole section of the forest is completely flooded!"
I stood up abruptly at Satoshi's words, completely forgetting what I'd been about to say. "What!?"
"It's true!" he gasped out, looking up at me earnestly. "I fell asleep and nearly got drowned by it! The water level's rising really fast, and I don't think it's the rain, either. Something's wrong."
I swore under my breath. Great! I'd been so concerned about Hiroshi getting married and my sisters being evil that I hadn't been paying attention to the Elements at all. "Show me where!" I commanded, already moving toward the door.
He was only too happy to comply. "This way!" I hurried after the Earth mage, barely aware of Hiroshi following along behind. Well, he should come with us, I told myself. We're going to find out who his new bride is, after all.
It was hard to see through a thick curtain of rain, but I was a Water mage. Hiroshi's hair and clothes were already soaked through, but I stayed dry. I'll see what I can do about this flood, anyway.
"It's just up the river this way, guys!" Satoshi ran over to the part of the river that ran into the city and stopped short. "Oh," he gulped.
"What?" I ran up beside him, and saw what he'd stopped for. The river wasn't running any more. It was just sitting there, collecting water. Already, I could feel it seeping into the grass, rising at an alarming rate. "Dear gods..."
"What's the matter?" Hiroshi called, following as I turned and ran upstream, into the woods. "Kasu-chan, what's going on?"
"The river's stopped running!" I answered, not looking back.
"So what does that mean?" he asked, hurrying to keep up.
"It means we're all going to be underwater if we don't get it running again, Hiro-kun!" I yelled. "Does it look to you like it's going to stop raining any time soon? This is going to get a lot worse before -- if -- it ever gets better!"
"It's the Water crisis!" Satoshi added, following after Hiroshi. "It has to be! Can you stop it, Kasumi?"
"I'm going to try!" Unlike my all-too-modest friend, I didn't have any objections to at least attempting to summon up that prophecy center thing. "I just want to try and keep it from rising any more!"
"OK, but be careful." We came to a halt beside Satoshi's flood and Hiroshi met my gaze squarely. "The Water will fight you. That's what happened to us." Satoshi nodded emphatically in agreement.
"I can do it." And I could, too. I wasn't weak like my sisters. I could do this. I had to. "I'll at least hold it, if nothing else. Let me know if some other Water mage shows up, though, OK?"
Without waiting for an answer, I called my Water control and went to do battle with the still beast that awaited me.
Dormant, I realized, making a few probes, but dangerous. It felt like a trap waiting to spring. And the thing that would set it off would be the gathering of more water. This wasn't just a flood -- it was a tidal wave waiting to happen. I could sense that restless energy penned up inside the pooling liquid, waiting for just the right amount of ammunition before it exploded into something no one would want to face. The important thing here, I noted at once, would be to keep it from reaching that critical capacity. This was a time when the trick I used to keep myself dry in the rain would really come in handy -- it was just perfect, in fact.
Closing my eyes, I reached out across the range of the storm. It was far too loosely packed for me to accurately contain, but I could at least protect the area from taking in more water. It would mean that a lot of it flowed to the sides, but that was OK, considering that it wasn't raining there. I set to work.
Waterproofing something involved making it airtight which, with my powers, meant setting a layer of tightly packed water droplets across whatever I wanted to keep dry. This time, though, I'd also have to slant that barrior so that the water fell off the surface, rather than being allowed to gather on it. If and when the rain was stopped, I could dispell the layer of airtight water drops and just wait for the river to start running again -- which it would almost certainly do, because as I remembered, calling on those central powers seemed to be a decent way to set everything just right again. I concentrated on the water and let everything else slip from my mind.
Hiroshi had been right; that was the first thing I noticed. The Water did fight me, and hard. But growing up with my sisters had had its benefits -- I didn't take any kind of crap, no matter who or what I was arguing with. You don't stand a chance! I mercilessly crushed the water crystals together, using my determination to fuel the power I had employed. Working in that crude but effective manner, I eventually had every inch of the land beneath the rainstorm contained. So much for gaining the right amount of water for a tidal wave, I thought, in satisfaction.
"All right!" I gasped, as soon as everything was under my control. "I've got it in place; it won't grow any more. Now we'll see if I'm this Water mage from the prophecy, hmm? What do I do?"
"Good work, Kasu-chan." Hiroshi's eyes shone with approval; I think that helped me to steel my resolve more than anything. "You're great at this."
"You haven't answered my question yet," I reminded him.
"You have to bond with Water," Satoshi told me. "You know how to do that, don't you, Kasu-chan?" Now he looked worried.
"I wouldn't be much of a Water mage if I didn't," I assured him. "But... I'm going to have to do something kind of dramatic right now... Just leave me to it, OK?" Both of them nodded, accepting my judgement.
I took in a breath. "Wish me luck!" Then I opened a space in the water wall I'd created and dove into the still blue depths, making sure to close the hole I'd left after me.
This felt better. I was right in my Element, even as disobediant as it was being. It was just perfect. Surrounded by Water, I closed my eyes and concentrated on feeling. Just... letting it take me over. When I bonded, Water filled me, and I faded into just another part of it, as though dissolving in its unyielding harsh waves. But that was the purpose of a bond, anyway -- becoming part of the Element. Right?
Blue light flared in my eyes, and I stared right into it, not backing down. I'm as strong as you are, I told it, and it seemed to respond, almost: You are part of us. Part of it all. A rushing tidal wave took me over, and then I was washing down a stream, through a river, at the bottom of a lake, over and under the waves of an ocean. I was untamed; free. I could go wherever I wanted, do whatever I pleased... And no mortal being, anywhere, could ever hope to conquer me! I was invincible; it was the greatest feeling of my life.
And then, reluctantly, it set me back down and I was only an exhausted young woman again, unable to flow as I remembered doing, so vividly. The rain had ended, and I was floating with the current -- current? The river had to be running again. I let myself sink back against the soft waves, relieved. I did it! I did it! This is unbelievable! I'm starting to sound like Hiroshi now... I knew he was a bad influence...
"Kasu-chan!" My friend was now running toward me even as I dragged myself out of the water. I tried to stand, but stumbled, exhausted. No, I am not weak! The memory of being invincible was vivid still. I'm strong, damnit!
Hiroshi caught me then, just holding me. "Kasumi," he murmured softly. "You're just exhausted. It'll pass." His warm breath was ghosting across my face, he was so close. "You were incredible," he breathed, almost reverently.
"When we're older, Kasu-chan, want to marry me?"
"I'll tell you some day, Hiro-kun, OK? Just wait."
I looked up at his face and saw my life stretching before me -- our lives, together, entwined forever. "You are incredible every day," I whispered back, and we both smiled, lost in each other's eyes.
* * * A few days later... * * *
"It's almost time, Kasumi."
I smiled, taking the roses from the younger girl who stood in front of me with a huge smile on her face. Everyone in Masara was being so nice about helping us get organized -- I couldn't believe we'd managed to put together what we had in such a short amount of time.
Even though it wasn't much.
Hiroshi had suggested we wait, but I didn't want fancy, anyway. It would be perfect, I thought, just to have a simple little arrangement with no special elaborations of any kind. I'd lived around overdone decorations and richly polished ceremonies all my life; all that I wanted today was Hiroshi, myself, and our declaration of undying love. That was everything that mattered in my life, so why should I want more right now?
"Come on, Kasumi!" another girl called, pulling on my hand to get me out of the makeshift tent that I'd used to get ready in. We were having this outdoors, which I think both of us preferred anyway. It had even decided to be decently nice out today, too -- at least, the sun was shining.
Somebody was playing a flute as I walked down our "aisle" in my simple white gown. For some reason, that made me smile. The music was soft and sweet... fitting for the occassion. I looked up toward the front of the room and smiled happily. Who would've thought...
Hiroshi waited for me, in simple black and white, with his hair combed back neatly. He looked nervous -- understandable, considering the circumstances. I could hardly believe how long it had taken me to realize... when he had known it all along. But he didn't need to worry now. I would never let him go, not in a million years.
"Nervous?" I whispered softly, settling into place beside him.
"Not much," he answered, and I saw the light in his eyes when he looked at me. Hard to believe I'd missed it for so long.
I smiled and watched the crowd from the corner of my eyes. Most of them were Hiroshi's friends from Masara, but there were a few who knew me as well. I hadn't invited any of the nobles, and, though I'd given my sister the simple courtesy of an invitation, they had predictably chosen to decline. They weren't missed.
Satoshi stood off to the side, and I noticed that his eyes were full of longing as he watched us exchange our vows. Some day, Satoshi, I thought, heart aching for him. He could be just as happy as us, if not more so. I concentrated my attention on Hiroshi as we promised each other our love, forever.
"These aren't very fine, Kasu-chan," he whispered, sliding the plain silver band onto my finger.
"Doesn't matter," I told him truthfully, and did the same for him. "I don't need a fancy ring, Hiroshi. All I want is you."
His hand brushed my cheek. "I love you."
"Love you too." I caught it in my own.
Then our lips met, and the rest of the world no longer mattered.